By J Dobson
I doubt there is a more popular weapon system available today than the modern sporting rifle, or AR. They can be had in many different calibers and configurations, more accessories than you can imagine and they are genuinely fun to shoot. On top of all that, in the 5.56 caliber they are inexpensive to shoot compared to many other calibers.
Another great thing about the AR rifle is that, at this time, they can be built or bought relatively inexpensively. My purpose for writing this article is to give the reader some ideas and advice on building a budget AR rifle. I will concentrate on the 5,56 caliber, which will also shoot 223 ammunition. This platform is the least expensive to build of the AR calibers.
Why build? I like the idea of building because it allows you to configure the rifle exactly like you want. It also allows you to purchase parts incrementally over time, thus easier on the budget. An added benefit is that you become intimately aware of all the working parts of the system during construction. This should allow you to trouble shoot the weapon should there be any issues.
A good starting point is the lower receiver. The least expensive option is a forged receiver. The other option is billet, which is awesome but also twice (or more) as expensive. All of my receivers are forged, I never saw the need for billet though they are very nice.
The receiver is the registered part of the firearm and will need to be bought from a gun dealer. A good idea is to visit your local gun shop and show interest in them to the shop owner or employee. Ask if they are ever put on sale, talk shop with them. Tell them you are wanting to build an AR. They need to recognize your face for subsequent visits, and know you are interested. Most times they will quote you a price cheaper than the sticker. Don’t be afraid to mention prices you’ve seen elsewhere.
Also, ask what they charge for a transfer. If you buy a receiver online you will need the receiver transferred to a FFL shop for transfer to you. Gun shops in my area charge anywhere from $50 to $20 for a transfer if you buy a receiver online. It is important to consider the transfer fee when deciding how to purchase your receiver, whether online or in a local shop. Your total cost of the receiver should include the transfer fee if bought online. I try to support small business and if the total cost is within reason, I buy local. If the local shop carries other parts needed for assembly, I would keep them in mind also.
If going the online route, you would be advised to embrace the marketing. Go to the websites and sign up for their newsletter. It is much easier to have them send you their sale items in an email than look at countless websites daily, and you should look at them daily to get the good deals before they sell out.
My most recent lower receiver purchase was from joeboboutfitters.com. My local gun shop was already set up in their system, it was an easy transaction. I bought a blemished Spikes Tactical honey badger lower, I couldn’t find anything to deem it a blemish. It was $79.95 with free shipping. The same lower was $125 locally, the transfer fee was $20. I saved about $25 plus tax. Once you have the receiver, the great thing is that the rest of the parts can be bought online.
Lower Parts Kit
The next step for me was the lower parts kit, or LPK. I purchased my LPK from Palmetto State Armory, but they are available from a multitude of websites. This was a price driven decision. Looking at their website you can be overwhelmed, but be patient and wait on sale items. If you can get a complete lower build kit at a good price most of the time its best to go this route. Right now, they have a complete lower build kit for $100. This kit comes with a stock, buffer tube assembly, everything to complete the lower. There are multitudes of websites and YouTube videos on how to assemble the lower.
A note on triggers, I have shot virtually every type of trigger made for an AR rifle. I have had good luck with the Palmetto triggers. While not as smooth as higher end trigger groups, you get what you pay for and this is a budget build.
Now that the lower is complete, it’s time to start on the upper. Uppers can be assembled, or bought in parts and assembled. For the true budget build, a complete upper can be bought for less than one can be assembled. A few weeks ago Palmetto State Armory had complete uppers for around $250, hard to build them that cheap.
If you decide to build an upper, below I will list the individual parts and websites that have had good deals in the past. I won’t list a website unless I have bought parts from them and had a good experience.
Palmetto State Armory- my only complaint about Palmetto is that there is virtually no communication once the order is placed. You can call them and get info, but no emails or tracking info, parts just show up at your door. Also, sale items sell out quickly, sometimes in minutes.
Mas Defense- look in the “Specials” section. They also offer blems. This is a website you would need to check regularly, they don’t offer a newsletter.
Palmetto State Armory- look for blems, they run them on sale from time to time for $40. You can also buy the parts to complete a stripped upper for a good price.
Joe Bob Outfitters- look for blems, they also run specials on billet. They don’t really have a newsletter, you just have to check the website.
Gas Block and Tube
These are inexpensive parts, a gas tube should cost around $15. A gas block around $25. Be advised, you pay for the name on these items and many are the same identical part.
Bolt Carrier Group
Palmetto State Armory
AresArmor.com– Sign up for the newsletter, their inventory is hit or miss. I have bought several BCG’s from them with good service and their parts are high quality.
Charging handles can get expensive, some going for upwards of $100. I have bought several standard charging handles and then added an oversize latch. Looks the same as an expensive one, works just as well. You can buy inexpensive charging handles at any of the websites that I have mentioned, most also offer the latches.
Optics and Sights
This a personal choice, but I will give you a piece of advice, there are some Magpul flip up sights on eBay for a good price. Be warned that they are for “practice, simulation, and training” purposes, basically air soft quality. I have seen them first hand, they are lesser quality than standard Magpul sights. That being said, all the websites I have listed previously offer different options for sights, I would shop around.
PrimaryArms.com– I have bought red dots, magnifiers, and mounts from this site. They seem to be good quality, I haven’t had them long. They are a good, low cost option.
Handguards can get very expensive, you can spend as much as you like. I have seen rifles built with free float quad rails from ebay in the $40 range, honestly, they work as advertised.
MasDefense.com– lots of low priced options.
UTG Pro- several websites sell this brand, they get good reviews.
There are hundreds of forums and websites devoted to the AR15. Most of them have a “buy, sell and trade’ section. I have bought parts from individuals through these forums several times, just be aware that there is seldom any return policy. Also worth mentioning are “Group Buys”, these are special sales limited to forum members but the forums are easy enough to join.
I hope this information will help you if you choose to build an AR-15. I have no relationship with any of the websites mentioned, I am just a customer. There are hundreds of websites that sell the parts mentioned, these are just the ones that I have done business with.
Be smart about designing your weapon, check your local laws and regulations. A barrel shorter than 16” can get you in a lot of trouble very quickly, just don’t do it unless you are building a pistol. If you don’t have the tools or know-how needed to assemble the rifle, it is best to have a gunsmith assemble it. Also, it’s best to have a gunsmith look over your rifle once assembled and prior to shooting. Improperly built rifles can cause serious injuries and death.